By Joseph Cannavo
On May 24, 1915, Italy entered World War I on the side of the Allies. Prior to that date Italy had been loosely allied with the Central Powers of the German Empire and Austria- Hungary in what was known as the Triple Alliance. However when the war broke out in August, Italy chose not to join with its ally partners in declaring war. Instead, in May 1915, almost a year after the war’s commencement, after a period of wavering and after secret negotiations with France and Great Britain in which Italy negotiated for territory if victorious, Italy entered the war on the side of the Allies. That date would eventfully become a day of commemoration named Italian Infantry Day or in Italian as Giornata del Decorato, which is commemorated much as we commemorate Veterans Day.
The first shells were fired in the dawn of May 24, against enemy positions of Cervignano del Friuli, which was captured a few hours later. On the same day the Austro-Hungarian fleet bombarded the railway stations of Manfredonia and Ancona. The first Italian casualty was Riccardo Di Giusto.
During the war Italy fought mostly against Austria-Hungary along the northern border, including high up in what are now the Italian Alps and along the Isonzo River. The Italian troops had some initial successes, but as in the Western Front, the campaign soon evolved into trench warfare. The main difference was that the trenches had to be dug in the Alpine rocks and glaciers instead of in the mud, and often up to 9,800 feet of altitude. The Italian army repeatedly attacked Austria, making little progress and suffering heavy losses, and then being routed in 1917 by a German-Austrian counteroffensive after Russia left the war, allowing the Central Powers to move reinforcements to the Italian Front from the Eastern Front.
By October 1918 the Italians’ attacks took their toll. The Austrian army broke, and the Italians drove deep into Austrian territory, leading to the collapse of Austria-Hungary. Fighting ended on 3 November 3rd, 1918. Italy and the Allies had been victorious. Italian armed forces were also involved in the Western Front and in the Middle Eastern theatre of World War I.
At the end of World War I, Italy was recognized a permanent seat in the League of Nations’ executive council along with Britain, France and Japan.
During the war Italian troops also played a major role in the Balkans and the Middle East. In the Balkans Italy defended Albania against Austria-Hungary. From 1916 the Italian 35th Division fought on the Salonika Front as part of the Allied Army of the Orient. The Italian XVI Corps, a separate entity independent from the Army of the Orient, took part in actions against Austro-Hungarian forces in Albania; in 1917 they established an Italian protectorate over Albania. While in the Middle East Italy played a token role in the Sinai and Palestine Campaign, sending a detachment of 500 soldiers to assist the British there in 1917. As Italy entered the war on May 24,1915, the situation of her forces in the African colonies was critical. Italian Somaliland, in the east, was far from being pacified, and in North Africa’s Cyrenaica the Italian forces were confined to some separated points on the coast. But in neighboring Tripolitania and Fezzan, the story has a different beginning. In August 1914, during their previous colonial invasion and occupation versus local military and forces of the Ottoman Empire, the Italian forces reached Ghat; that is, conquered most of western Libya. But in November 1914, this advance turned into a general retreat, and on April 7 and April 28, they suffered two reverses at Wadi Marsit (near Mizda) and al-Qurdabiya (near Sirte) respectively. By August 1915, the situation in Tripolitania was similar to that of Cyrenaica. The conquest of all of Libya was not resumed until January 1922.
At the Paris Peace Conference Italy’s representative in the Paris Peace Conference which led to the Versailles Treaty was Premier Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, considered one of the “Big Four” with President Woodrow Wilson of the United States, Prime Minister David Lloyd-George of the United Kingdom, and Premier Georges Clemenceau of the French Republic. After being stymied several times in pressing his nation’s claims on Dalmatia and part of German colonies conquered by the Allies, he finally left the conference in a boycott. The territorial gains were small in comparison to the cost of the war for Italy and of the promises made to Italy by the Allies. The uncertain socio-economic situation caused heavy social strife which led to the Biennio rosso and later the rise of Fascism and its leader Benito Mussolini. The debt contracted to pay for the war’s expenses was finally paid back only in the 1970s.
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